In an interview with ABC correspondent Barbara Walters on December 11, 2012, U.S. President Barack Obama said the United States had recognized the Syrian Opposition Council (SOC) as the legitimate government of war-torn Syria. That recognition makes the SOC the umbrella group under which all rebel forces opposing the regime of Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad will operate.
Opponents to Assad have been battling his loyal forces since Spring 2011. Even as Obama was making his recognition announcement, reports surfaced that Assad's forces had fired SCUD-type missiles at opposition troops. SCUDS are of the same type that Saddam Hussein fired at Israel and U.S./coalition troops during the Persian Gulf War in 1991. They also tend to be technologically crude devices, descendants of the German V2 rockets of World War II.
Observers have also been worried for more than a week that Assad's troops were preparing to use chemical weapons against rebels.
Obama's Recognition Announcement
Obama explained to Walters that, "We've made a decision that the Syrian Opposition Coalition is now inclusive enough, is reflective and representative enough of the Syrian population that we consider them the legitimate representative of the Syrian people in opposition to the Assad regime." The United States had for some time encouraged the old Syrian National Council (SNC) to expand its membership so that it did not simply reflect Syrians outside that country, but those inside as well. Obama's statement made it clear that the SOC has demonstrated broad-based support.
The announcement came as the international group Friends of Syria prepared to open a meeting in Marrakech, Morocco. The 100-nation group also recognized the SOC as Syria's legitimate government. Great Britain, France, and Turkey have already done so.
What Does Recognition Mean?
Obama said the recognition was a "big step" that brought with it additional responsibilities for the SOC. But what exactly does this diplomatic recognition mean?
- The recognition is largely political rather than legal. While reports from inside Syria indicate that the battlefield advantage may be going to the rebels, Assad is still in office. Nevertheless, Obama's statement is a morale booster, indicating to the rebels that the U.S. fully expects Assad's ouster and is prepared to deal with the SOC as a replacement government.
- New governments don't survive without the backing of strong, stable governments. In this instance, Russia has declined to recognize the SOC, and it charges that America's recognition was premature and derails any peace process. While other western nations have acknowledged the SOC, the recognition of the U.S. carries quite the legitimizing impact. So, recognition carries a global stamp of approval.
- Communication with the SOC should help better target U.S. foreign aid moving into Syria. USAID Foreign Disaster Assistance Director Mark Bartolini told CBS that recognition of the group should help clear up gaps in knowledge about the situation inside Syria, and that will help USAID deliver more accurate aid packages. Deputy U.S. Secretary of State William Burns announced in Marrakech that the U.S. is allocating another $14 million to Syrian aid relief, taking the U.S. total to nearly $210 million.
- Recognition, however, does not mean the U.S. will supply arms to Syrian rebels. For now, American assistance will remain "non-lethal."
- Technical expertise, like foreign aid, will be better directed because of the diplomatic recognition. U.S. State Department spokesperson Victoria Nuland said in a press conference December 12 that recognition "will give us the opportunity to better direct the nonlethal assistance that we are providing so that it can get directly to political leaders on the ground in the local coordinating councils, particularly in those areas of Syria that have now been liberated from regime control."